BY MIKA SKARP
Traditionally Public Safety Communication networks have been closed, proprietary networks, but that’s all about to change. Today, Public Safety networks are rapidly being integrated within the commercial communications grid.
For anyone who has watched this space over the last few decades that amounts to a sea change for how Public Safety fits into the larger business ecosystem. Will this bring an about a new wave of innovative players that weren’t there before? Will public safety communications one day become a thriving, competitive marketplace?
Can Public Safety be a Competitive Marketplace?
This past week I had the opportunity to meet and reconnect with scores of public safety stakeholders from coast to coast in the US, many of them involved in the FirstNet initiative that is being delivered on AT&T’s existing LTE network and touted quite correctly as the world’s most advanced Public Safety Communications Network.
This model for public-private partnership in public safety communications (or, as I like to call them PPPPSCs…;) may be new on a global stage, but it’s already proving its worth in driving down costs, fostering innovation and playing host to new and advanced technologies arriving from all sectors.
For our part, and as one the innovators on the network side, we can see the advantages of the PPPPSC model first hand, but also how much work remains to be done. Certainly, coverage must be built out and expanded, and certain components of the network need to be made more robust.
That said, this way of using commercial networks, and with such features, a pre-emption and local control, (FirstNet’s term for Network Slicing) among others, will ensure every bit of the reliability of a proprietary network like TETRA and so much more.
On the application development side, Public Safety is a new, untapped opportunity and one with some difference, but nonetheless promising revenue potential. While the number of public safety operatives caps out at 75 million worldwide, with forecasted revenues of some $80 Billion by 2026 the math begins to emerge. Think lower volume, (and much) higher margin, not to mention great bragging rights about working with the government.
The time is now
Today we see many use cases in which Public Safety organizations are using consumer apps or worse, some custom designed code to serve a specific need. It’s no surprise that in just as many cases agencies are choosing not to use apps that would serve them well in the field but for security concerns.
The most recent foible over FitBit foisting sensitive data to the world at large is but a case in point. Last week the news was abuzz about the health device/app providing the precise locations of likely military or government personnel in places like Syria and Afghanistan and….well, you get the picture.
Still, there are a good number of perfectly serviceable consumer technologies that provide immediate benefits for Public Safety including Push-to-Talk, and One-to-Many communications that are available on consumer phones and work just fine on any LTE network. And with this example alone, in a market where there are multiple, interoperable Push-to-Talk vendors, we are already seeing its competitive potential.
Taking the “public safety as competitive marketplace” concept one step further up the food chain, if we can have multiple, overlapping application and device vendors, then why not have two or more public safety networks? Again, it seems that we’re already there in the US, as AT&T rival Verizon is planning to launch their own Public Safety network to compete with FirstNet.
Technically this is no Herculean task as they are using exactly the same LTE technology as AT&T that supports the very same applications and devices, and this only drives more opportunities for competition. Certainly, from a cost perspective, two providers is better than just one. Between the two networks, however, there is some concern around app interoperability.
From the outset, the main the argument for FirstNet was that because police forces and fire departments used different communication methods, there was a baked in risk, and precisely the one that had tragic consequences during the 911 attacks, as communications failure between first responders lead directly to the deaths of 128 firefighters in the second tower.
Note: This horrific event is the starting point of our recently published case study on FirstNet.
So to the questions – could this happen again if there were two LTE public safety networks? The answer, fortunately, is no. This is because LTE networks are IP-based which means that compatibility is managed at the application level.
Just as there are no interoperability issues between, say WhatsApp and Skype calls on differing networks, Public Safety communications applications would behave the very same way on AT&T’s network as they would on Verizon’s with zero interoperability issues.
This strengthens the case for two networks, but weakens the case for multiple apps, as for example, there are issues if you want to call a WhatsApp contact from Skype.
Certainly, from a Public Safety community point of view, the more networks the better. This is mostly to help insure better, more redundant coverage, particularly in the case of outages.
Remember that in the 911 case, the breakdown in communication was due to melted repeaters on a single, dedcasted network. Multiple, interoperable networks would have helped avert that problem. With two networks you can reach over 99% availability according to our partner, Goodmill Systems who provide hybrid network hopping for public safety. In this case, more is more and will all be even delivered at an even lower cost.